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Research Where Your Channels Cross

by Jessica Peterson
8 min read
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Solid UX requires understanding the relationships customers have with your different points of access.

Cross-channel user experience describes what happens when a customer begins interacting with two or more faces of the many entities that form her consumer universe. If she’s ordering a second color of her favorite shoe style, making an appointment for an appliance repair, or resolving a problem with her wireless bill, she may find herself logging into her account on a web portal, tweeting a customer service rep from her smartphone, or dialing a customer service number she finds on a paper statement—all of them potentially cross-channel experiences.

She’s likely to expect that a brand’s website, the e-mail about a new mobile app that came in this morning, the branch store down the street, the bill that came in the mail yesterday, and the person who answers the phone when she dials the 800-number will all provide comparable information about products and services while sharing access to her important customer information.

She’s more than likely to find out they don’t, and that in each of these channels, her experience is a little (or even a lot) different.

What is Cross-Channel UX?

The company she’s reaching out to may be well aware that their customer expects access to a similar level of service and a consistent experience at every touch point, and the pursuit of that consistency across all channels is known by a lot of names: multi-channel experience, cross-channel customer experience, and service design, among others. Cross-channel user experience specifically refers to the journeys customers make between the varied access points available to them during the same interaction with a company—maybe even leapfrogging between them all on the same day. Web, social, mobile, call center, e-mail, and print can all bring a customer to a point of contact with a brand, and if one channel doesn’t give them what they need, they’re likely to try another. The business people and user experience teams who are responsible for crafting the experience in a single digital channel can’t succeed without insight into the other channels as well.

A great cross-channel user experience could be the result of a company’s top-down, unified view of their customers, harnessed to create a consistent digital strategy across every channel. But for many companies, striving toward that ideal happens from the bottom up, when customer surveys or reviews warn that something is broken, or when customer experience teams make changes in one channel that have to be reconciled with the impact on another channel.

Even if you’re not already familiar with the challenges cross-channel UX research presents, you may know that some companies aren’t aware that there are gaps between the experiences in their channels. Furthermore, few have sketched out guidelines for conducting user research on experiences that span existing channels. And often, a company’s internal technology teams operate from different budgets on different timelines, making it a challenge to plan UX research that requires a coordinated effort.

A customer journey map is an excellent example of user research that has the power to look across every aspect of a customer interaction, but it may not give a company specific direction for what precisely needs to change. Quantitative and qualitative user experience research is needed to add dialogue and plot points to the storyline the customer journey map tells. In other words, if the customer journey map is the architect’s rendering of the floor plan and the view from the curb, cross-channel user experience research can help decide how to place the stairs, the doors, the plumbing, and the electrical outlets so that every room in the house is usable.

How Do You Conduct Cross-Channel UX Research?

Maybe at your organization, there are internal silos that prevent you from budgeting for research involving three or four project teams that are responsible for different channels. Maybe your company still has questions to answer about the areas where customers fall through the cracks between channels. One way over those hurdles is to begin visualizing or prototyping experiences that mimic existing cross-channel experiences. Then start planning for how you could test them with users, and who in your organization would benefit from knowing the results.

Here are a few case studies that show how you can think through a cross-channel research plan and sketch out a proposal for what it would take to get the research done.

Case Study #1

At AnswerLab, we recently worked with a major shipping company to test a store locator utility customers could use on desktop, mobile phones, and tablets. Our research with their customers found that smartphones were more useful in real-life situations than desktop, since customers could find locations on the go, within a few blocks from where they stood.

An unexpected finding was that nearly all of the smartphone users said that they would simply tap to call one of the stores they found using the locator. Though the new website provided lots of ways to sort through nearby locations and find the right services, customers thought it would be easier to call and get a staff member to tell them what shipping services they provide, or even just to find out store hours or the last express pickup time of the day. In the end, our research found that our client’s great new multi-platform experience made it even easier for their customers to cross channels—from their mobile website to calling their stores or call centers.

Cross-Channel Research Plan: Extend the interview to observe users’ calls to the stores or customer support. Capture the feedback they get from staff and how that adds to what users experienced on their desktop, phone, or tablet. Identify what insights staff are sharing that the customers didn’t get from the website. Lastly, use those findings to help decide whether to bake the right information into the web-based locator, or perhaps strip down the locator even more to facilitate those quick phone calls when it’s most useful to customers.

Case Study #2

With the right planning, cross-channel user experience research can identify important differences in user needs across channels, and what users expect when they move from one to another. AnswerLab recently carried out this kind of research in partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation. We studied how Wikipedia users access, read, and search mobile content, as well as how they use their mobile devices in tandem with their desktop.

By observing how people use Wikipedia in their natural environments, we found that users want to quickly access article overviews and leads on mobile devices to allow easy skimming, because they were accustomed to quickly skimming larger chunks of text at a time on their desktops. We also discovered that since typing was more difficult on the mobile platform than desktop, it was challenging for users to enter exact search terms—so we recommended adding predictive and corrective search functionality to the mobile experience. And since users are spending increasingly more time accessing and interacting with content from their phones; we learned that contributors needed a way to log in and make edits right from their mobile, as well as being able to check their watchlist and participate in user discussions.

Cross-channel Research Plan: A multi-week field study observing Wikipedia users across various platforms in their natural environment. Across three metropolitan areas, we conducted introductory phone interviews, collected multiple weeks of self-reported diary feedback on Wikipedia usage, and conducted two-hour in-home interviews.

Case Study #3

Not long ago, I checked my personal e-mail on a smartphone during a break in conducting research to discover $100 in mysterious iTunes charges to my PayPal account. PayPal recognized this was fraudulent even before I did, but when I reviewed the case history on my account portal on the PayPal website, I found that none of the alerts and messages described what my next steps should be as the account holder. What would I need to do—if anything—to make sure the charges were removed? How long would I have to wait for a refund? I called the PayPal customer service line and was connected quickly to a customer service rep who explained that I could either wait for PayPal to resolve it, or I could call iTunes myself if I was anxious to receive an update. The customer service rep offered to send me the toll free number for iTunes, using the e-mail address he saw in my account profile. Clicking back to my e-mail inbox, I saw that I received his e-mail instantly. This case offers a number of opportunities to understand the unspoken questions that motivate customers to switch from one channel to another.

Cross-channel Research Plan: Simultaneous intercept for callers and web visitors: did they recently receive a message about suspicious activity on their account? Invite customers to participate in a web-based survey or a live qualitative study evaluating alternatives to the notification format, such as alternate e-mail content, text messaging, or outbound calls to their registered mobile. Find out what customers’ first concerns were upon notification, and develop recommendations for how to pro-actively follow up with them in the channel they use most—or across all of them.

Case Study #4

Here’s an example of the kind of cross-channel experience your enterprise doesn’t want to create. This spring, a major airline changed their notification strategy for delayed flights from e-mail messages to an automated outbound call blast every time an update hit the system. Before grabbing a taxi for the airport, I picked up my smartphone to find seven missed calls and voicemails—all recorded messages from the airline, each communicating a new delayed departure time for my flight. I checked in on the most recent flight status using a mobile app, and then hopped in a cab. Once we were on board and prepared for takeoff, the pilot suddenly announced to passengers that the flight would be delayed another few hours while crews worked to repair equipment issues. Everyone sighed and switched on their mobile phones to check e-mail, Facebook, play games, and to call their families. Ten minutes later, a chorus of phones rang in unison throughout the cabin. It was the airline, sending outbound calls to customers to communicate what they’d already heard first hand, then confirmed using their mobile phones. Laughter and groans from their customers was undoubtedly not the cross-channel experience the airline had hoped for.

Cross-channel Research Plan: Diary studies and/or qualitative interviews with frequent travelers: where are they at the moment when they find out about updates in flight status? Crucially, what do they do next? Does the notification strategy drive a change in their behavior? Does it help them plan for the inconvenience, or does it cause more disruption? Find out more about their behavior in this frequent rainy-day scenario by testing the sequence across as many interfaces as users might encounter, with airline customers themselves.


These are just a few observations about the kinds of cross-channel experiences you may think about testing with users. User experience research can help uncover glitches in these interactions before your organization has implemented a cross-channel user experience strategy from the top down.

Knowing when and why positive and negative experiences occur during cross-channel transitions will help you empower your organization to make changes that affect UX from a broader perspective. And it isn’t all about fixing what’s broken: even if your existing interfaces and applications give your customers all the tools to answer their needs in a single channel, it doesn’t mean they’ll choose to stay there. Prepare for them to ricochet between whatever touch points are handiest for them in the moment—and make sure to study what happens when they move from one channel to the next.


Images of woman crossing channels courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorJessica Peterson

Jessica Peterson, Jessica Peterson, Ph.D., has fifteen years of experience in cognitive science and user research.  At AnswerLab, she has recently led UX research engagements in finance, insurance, retail, automotive, and logistics. She has a deep interest in international consumer markets, fueled by her work with clients in Europe and Latin America and exciting opportunities to conduct multilingual and international research. She loves that research allows her to interact with people from an astonishing cross-section of cultures, personalities, and attitudes. She’s passionate about women changing the world, especially through technology. Jessica received her doctorate in Linguistics with a specialization in Cognitive Science from Northwestern University. She graduated summa cum laude from Rice University with a B.A. in Linguistics.


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